Manayunk’s COSACOSA art gallery wins Cohen Award

The Manayunk-based non-profit organization COSACOSA Art at Large received the Philadelphia Cultural Fund’s 2011 Councilman David Cohen Award this week in a City Hall ceremony.

The organization was chosen for its work in promoting health, education, equality, and collaboration among racially, culturally and economically diverse Philadelphians.

COSACOSA is now in its 20th year of projects that have spanned more than 30 Philadelphia neighborhoods, encouraging residents of all ages to connect to each other through the arts.

Director Kim Niemela points to several recent projects devoted to “large-scale civic development”, including Change in the Making, which has unleashed 20 artists in 20 different communities, local and abroad, to gather diverse photographs and stories on positive neighborhood change.

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Local program participants, including schoolchildren who are encouraged to photograph their own neighborhoods, find new ways to express their own stories, and ideas for neighborhood improvement, by learning about others’.

Niemela emphasizes that such programs not only lead to the development of widely applicable service-learning curricula, but also promote vital literacy skills, including the ability to compare and contrast, in the work of recognizing and expressing similarities and differences between communities.

Another aspect of the program is a “theatrical dialogue” in which students cast as developers, business owners and residents role-play ways to solve common neighborhood issues. A “game show” format in which potential problems are chosen from a large spinning wheel adds fun to the activity while challenging students to practice coping with unpredictable situations.

COSACOSA program participants “use the arts to broaden their perspective on their neighborhood,” Niemela says.

Other programs from the last year focused on healthy habits, and included an autumn event in North Philadelphia’s Healing Garden, where fall art projects as fun and simple as painting pumpkins brought residents together, while children had a chance to sample a range of fresh harvest vegetables – healthy foods to which they might not otherwise be exposed.

With the Cohen Award behind it, one of COSACOSA’s next projects is unfolding in the Andrew Jackson Elementary School of South Philadelphia. There is no better example of the city’s diversity: Niemela notes that the school hosts 28 different nationalities.

Instead of leaving children to separate into their own racial or cultural groups, the program encourages students to connect with their own heritage and share it with others, with an in-school forum for real-life stories collected through interviews with the elders of their families and communities.

On Sunday, May 15, Niemela invites residents to COSACOSA’s open community event on Manayunk’s Main Street from 2 to 5 p.m., Change of State: Creating Dialogue in Israel and Palestine. Photographer Sharon Gershoni’s images will explore dialogues between Israelis and Palestinians, and promote discussion on peace in our own communities. Attendees can meet the artist, sample regional foods and join a hands-on art project.

The Wagner Free Institute of Science in North Philadelphia was the other recipient of the Cohen award. 

For more information about COSACOSA Art at Large and its upcoming events, visit or call 215-385-2554.

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